Before UFC 223, the Bleacher Report MMA team got together with one question on its mind: Who is the best lightweight alive?
There were three dudes trying to lay claim to the title, and three other dudes took a crack at arguing which one of them might be right.
Fast forward from the end of the spring to the approaching end of the summer, and a similar question has been put forth a couple of weight classes below: Who is the best men's bantamweight alive?
UFC 227 is to be headlined by a rematch of UFC 217's heated brawl between TJ Dillashaw and Cody Garbrandt—a bout that ended with Garbrandt looking up at the lights while Dillashaw celebrated his second title reign. Beyond those two, there are whole host of sharks circling, including some old faces like Dominick Cruz and some newer names like Marlon Moraes.
At the end of the day, though, the Bleacher Report MMA team looked to narrow it to three. Scott Harris, Nathan McCarter and Matthew Ryder each stood up for one guy at 135, and the results are as follows...
A Rising Challenger
Sometimes a glimpse is enough to show your greatness.
You see something, and it's quick, but man it is impressive—great even.
That was what we saw at UFC 207, when Garbrandt showed the world he's the best bantamweight alive. It was quick, but man it was impressive.
For 25 minutes, he styled on Cruz, the consensus best bantamweight who ever lived, juking and jabbing and twisting and turning and throwing combinations like Cruz never had a fight in his life and Garbrandt was Muhammad Ali reincarnate.
It was genuinely amazing, the type of moment that happens in MMA once in a generation and leaves your jaw on the floor.
Garbrandt was 25 then, an undefeated world champion and an astonishing story.
He was upwardly mobile as a prospect and had shown he might develop into something, but nobody could have foreseen he'd be the one to so unceremoniously dispose of Cruz. He learned his craft as part of Team Alpha Male, a gym that had lost to Cruz again and again and again and again.
But he was The One.
He solved Cruz and staked his claim as the best 135er alive. He solved Cruz so convincingly, in fact, that Cruz isn't even in the conversation being had here about the top bantamweight dog in the yard.
Garbrandt was simply the best.
His reign lasted a year and was absent of any title defenses, and it was ended by former Team Alpha Male teammate turned bitter rival, Dillashaw. The fight did little to quell the notion that Garbrandt is still the best bantamweight alive, though—he hurt Dillashaw in the bout and lost only because he entered into an ill-timed firefight while pursuing offense.
If he tags Dillashaw before Dillashaw tags him, Garbrandt is still near the top of the UFC pound-for-pound rankings.
Unfortunately for the Ohioan, one punch often makes perception in MMA. If you're on the wrong end of such a punch, you're forgotten until you can get on the right end of one again.
Inactivity and an unflattering lasting memory of his most recent performance have left people forgetting the 11-0 megastar in the making who obliterated Cruz and appeared ready to hold gold for quite some time. They instead remember him as an overhyped, glassy-eyed loser, a victim of Dillashaw's quick wits and even quicker hands who'll never hold gold again.
Those folks should hold that memory close at their peril.
Garbrandt is still young and skilled, still hungry and focused, still willing to do whatever he must to regain his title.
He is still talented in ways few others are at his weight class or at any other.
He is no loser, he is simply an elite talent presently without a belt to illustrate it to maximum effect.
Garbrandt is the best bantamweight alive today.
An Overlooked Contender
To my mind, the best bantamweight alive is Raphael Assuncao. And even if he isn't, Assuncao has certainly earned the right to prove it one way or the other.
Not to make this all about me, but after he dominated Rob Font earlier this month, I wrote that he was the most underrated fighter not only at bantamweight but in the entire UFC. It's quite an easy argument to make given that he's won 11 of his last 12 bouts and sits at 27-5 overall.
His only loss in that 12-fight streak? That would be to Dillashaw. Assuncao has also beaten Dillashaw. The great but perpetually shelved Cruz is the only one to beat Dillashaw in the past six years.
Assuncao's problem isn't substance. It's style. His counter-striking and control-grappling mean low output and lots of decisions. Sometimes those decisions are close, like the split nod he got over Marlon Moraes. Despite the loss, Moraes was put on a fast track to title town, while Assuncao was left to mop up undercards.
It's easy to think that Assuncao needs to force the UFC's hand, make it impossible for the brass to ignore him. But that should have happened after the Moraes fight. The UFC has stubbornly folded its arms and turned the other way. Assuncao and his fans have to hope that they eventually bite on a rubber match with Dillashaw. And don't kid yourself, that's a fight Assuncao can absolutely win. Just like all the other ones.
The Champion, Obviously
Dillashaw is the UFC bantamweight champion of the world.
Oh, I suppose the case should run a bit deeper, right?
The next man that could earn that moniker is Garbrandt and, oh yeah, Dillashaw knocked him out in the second round of their fight at UFC 217. We need to go on an even deeper dive? It seems pretty cut and dry who the best bantamweight is, but OK, let's continue onward.
Dillashaw has ascended to the top of the division, because above physical talent, he has the mental acuity to boot. MMA has always had a bit of a team mentality with camps, but ultimately, it is an individual sport.
Instead of staying hamstrung to Team Alpha Male, which is a fantastic gym in its own right, Dillashaw chose to do what was best for him and not the team as a whole. It landed him in hot water with the team, but it landed him UFC gold.
Dillashaw had the grappling game to lean on when he began the sport, but it wasn't until he hooked up with Duane Ludwig when his striking caught up to his wrestling. The dynamic ability on the ground and on the feet made him a true contender, and when he got the chance to take on Renan Barao, who was considered one of the pound-for-pound best at the time, Dillashaw absolutely tore through him at UFC 173. It was a shocking upset, but in hindsight, it was a formality.
To anyone who thought that bout was a fluke, they rematched at UFC on Fox 16, when Dillashaw beat him even worse. But he is not just a front-runner. In the win over Garbrandt, Dillashaw overcame a first-round knockdown and stormed back to finish minutes later. True grit and heart of a champion.
Dillashaw has taken bits and pieces from other fighters and adapted what they do to fit what he does best. Additionally, he studies the film and understands how to exploit those same techniques to maximize his offensive opportunities.
If anyone is going to knock Dillashaw, they will likely fall back on a 2013 loss to Assuncao. On paper, it's a loss. But don't forget that Dillashaw performed well and most media scored it for him, per MMADecisions.com.
He avenged that loss in a clear-cut win at UFC 200. He wouldn't lose again until another split decision against Cruz. Another contentious result.
Skill-for-skill, Garbrandt is right with Dillashaw in this discussion. But performance-for-performance, longevity and strength of competition all align with Dillashaw. He owns the tiebreaker anyhow with the head-to-head-victory. It's clear who stands atop the 135-pound mountain.
Call him a snake if you wish, but you also have to call him champion. Dillashaw is the best bantamweight on the planet right now.